A recent report on Amazon by New York Times writers, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, offers new insight into the company’s largely secret approach to recruitment, training, and employee management. Among other revelations, the article highlights the extent to which the company has built its retail empire on an allegedly punitive approach to training and managing employees of all ranks. In short, the article reports that employees are expected to work long hours on site and to remain online at virtually all hours of the day, to eschew family vacations and even personal crises for work, and to value harsh and cutting criticism over the “soft skills” that have become increasingly valued in most workplaces in recent years. In short, unlike many other high-tech leaders, the article claims that Amazon prides itself on being a cut-throat, race-to-the-top work environment where employees are more likely to be awarded for being hyper competitive and exhibiting extreme endurance than for being nice, considerate, and collaborative.
Amazon is also distinguished from many other high-tech leaders, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Netflix, in terms of its thinking on life-work balance issues. While many other tech companies have reputations for recruiting and retaining employees by “softening” the workplace (e.g., providing employees with on-site perks from free organic food to yoga classes and supporting their work-life balance with extended parental leave and the option of setting flexible hours), Amazon has emerged as a lone wolf in the tech world. Indeed, female and male employees alike are reportedly penalized for taking time off to tend to family matters, be it the birth of a new child or the need to care for a sick or dying spouse or parent. Some of the company’s former employees suggest that the bottom line is that delivering books, office supplies, batteries, and electric drills as fast as possible to customers around the world is more important than anyone’s personal situation, even life and death events.
To be fair, company founder Jeff Bezos does not agree with the New York Times writers’ harsh depiction of his company’s approach to employee training and management. In a letter issued to Amazon staff over the weekend, Bezos wrote, “The article…claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard…I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”
Whether or not the New York Times article has painted a fully accurate portrait, the article, based on 100 interviews with former and current employees, at the very least suggests that Amazon’s approach is out of sync with contemporary training and employee management trends. Still, there’s also reason to believe that Bezos is doing at least something right. After all, Amazon is now the largest e-retailer in the world. In 2014, the company reported close to $89 billion in net sales.
But is the company’s approach to recruitment, training and employee management sustainable? Perhaps more importantly, is the company’s approach ethical? Before answering these questions, it is important to consider precisely what Bezos’ approach entails.
High Volume Recruitment
Amazon has an active and competitive recruitment program. Even with thousands of jobs to fill every month, the company reportedly rejects more than 1 and 2 candidates. Moreover, existing Amazon employees known as “bar raisers” are used to vet new candidates. Notably, the company’s “bar raisers” do not receive additional compensation for their recruitment work. They volunteer and are chosen because they have a reputation for asking difficult interview questions. While Amazon hires thousands of new employees every year, their goal is to only keep the best, brightest and most committed. Employees who can’t keep up with the company’s demands or are simply unwilling to do so are routinely let go and in some cases, even paid to leave.
New employees must be prepared to hit the ground running. Training takes place on the job and on employee’s own time. Among other training approaches, Amazonians, as the company’s employees are known, are asked to memorize and adhere to the company’s creed—a list of personal and professional tenets, which includes fourteen edicts, including the following:
Ownership: Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.
Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Frugality: Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.
In addition, new employees are often saddled with far more responsibility and higher workloads than they have had in previous positions.
Amazon is well known for using metrics to monitor consumer habits and drive business (e.g., what we buy, how long it takes for us to decide to make a purchase, what we put in our cart and don’t purchase). What is less well known is the extent to which Amazon also uses metrics to monitor and drive employees. While metrics are an important part of any learning management system, at Amazon, every aspect of a worker’s performance is measured and ranked. From the earliest stages of the onboarding process, employees are also treated as data subjects in every respect. At the end of the day, employees are only kept if their metrics add up.
Fostering a Culture of Criticism
While other high-tech leaders have gained a reputation for creating fun, collaborative, creative and even wacky workplaces where employees skateboard around the office in casual clothes and participate in group yoga classes, Amazon is more committed to creating a serious workplace culture where self-criticism and criticism of other employees is not only tolerated but encouraged. Indeed, the company even provides a means through which employees can send criticisms about other employees to their managers to help create an ongoing archive of feedback on each employee. In short, employees put each other under surveillance and have a myriad of tools on hand to do so.
Is Amazon’s Approach Ethical and Sustainable?
Amazon has now eclipsed Walmart of the nation’s largest retailer and all signs point to the fact that Amazon’s dominance as a retailer will continue to grow over the coming years both in the US and around the world. Indeed, as a business model, its bare bones and at times cut-throat approach to employee recruitment, training and management appears to be good for business. But is it ethical and sustainable?
While arguably working against the tide (Amazon is not a “touchy feely” work environment), to suggest that Bezos’ corporate culture is unethical is a stretch. If anything, his corporate culture may simply represent a more traditional approach—one where contemporary concerns from soft skills to work-life balance—are considered far less important than established corporate values, such as leadership, endurance, frugality and customer service. But is this sustainable? While one might wonder why employees would pour their heart and soul into Amazon rather than chase a job opportunity in a “softer” corporate culture, for every disgruntled or terrified Amazonian, there are many more who claim to thrive in the culture’s competitive environment and even more lining up to join the company everyday. In other words, whatever critics might say, there’s no indication that Bezos is building a corporate culture that can’t be sustained over time.
So should we all start training like Amazonians? On the one hand, there is now a substantial body of research to support the assumption that a compassionate workplace that values the work-life balance of its employees has many benefits, including the retention of top employees. There is also a substantial body of research to support the conclusion that happy employees are healthier, take fewer days off and ultimately cost less than employees who are exhausted, depressed and burnt out. On the other hand, this still relatively new corporate culture has yet to be fully studied (e.g., will all that free organic food and yoga benefit employees and businesses ROI over time?). In addition, there is no question that there is always much to gain from promoting a culture of excellence. Thus, while we not want to start training like Amazonians, Bezos’ approach to employee training and management and his company’s phenomenal success (bear in mind that he took a product that was apparently dying in 1994—namely, books—and used it to build the world’s largest online retailer) cannot be fully dismissed. At the very least, Bezos reminds us that there are multiple ways to approach recruitment, training and employee management, even in this era of soft skills.